The Technical Communicator as Fiction Author

My apologies Dear Readers, if I’ve been out of the blogging loop lately. I have been hip-deep into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The goal there is to write a first draft of a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Brief note, in case you’re interested: I’m currently over 29,000 words, and am on track to finish by November 25, a few days early! It’s been an interesting experience, as I really haven’t written any long fiction like this since before I got paid to write, and this will be the longest work I’ve completed, ever. So this is a growth opportunity.

One thing I did transfer from my technical writing life to fiction writing was my habit of research. I needed a quick-and-dirty way to structure my work time and make sure I get things organized before I jumped in willy-nilly. I found a good method from someone I tutor in English a couple times a month. She’s trying to write children’s stories, and she found something called the Snowflake Method, which is a build-by-steps process of growing a narrative. Basically, you start with your “high concept” (or what I call the TV Guide description) and build out your plot, characters, and scenes from there. You can refer to the link for more details, but the point I wanted to make from the technical writing point of view is that if you’ve been doing TW for a number of years, you can apply the same systematic tools and structures that allow you to build large, complex work documents to the Great American Novel.

Outlining is a primary tool that tech writers use, and that outline usually starts with one or two important questions. Once you know what you’re writing and for whom, you can usually start structuring your document by heading, making certain that the content has a flow that makes sense for the context at hand.

 Another advantage I found with outlining is that I’ve avoided (for the most part) writer’s block. I’m exceeding my “quota” of words every night—you need to hit 1,667 words per day to kick out 50,000 in 30 days—and that quota is reached by knowing what I have to write every night. A more creative-writing friend of mine called outlining “cheating” because I already know the ending. Not so! I have a general trajectory in mind, I know what sorts of things I want to say, and I know what sorts of material I have to work with along the way. Does having an outline and an ending in mind mean I know exactly how things will read at the tail end of this narrative? No, because my characters might do things that I don’t expect or I realize later that a minor action will cause them to react in ways that will affect the final outcome. Nevertheless, if I approach the work with an overall outline/structure in mind, it’s really just a matter of filling in the content blanks.

Think of it this way: you have some instructions to build an airplane, bookcase, etc., and you know that certain steps are required for the overall assembly. So you lay out your “narrative” first, using headings and/or prompts to yourself to remind yourself what needs to happen in each section. From there, it’s just a matter of contacting your subject matter expert to fill in those blanks. In the case of a novel, the headings/prompts are your chapter names or scenes; YOU are the subject matter expert; your characters and plot are the content.

Instead of building an airplane or developing a procedural document, you’re telling a story, your story, and your first customer is you.

Go get ‘em! 🙂

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to The Technical Communicator as Fiction Author

  1. Beth Goddard says:

    I’m a fiction writer (published in over a dozen novels) who wants to write for NASA and I came across your post by doing a search on how to become a tech writer for NASA. Ha! The fact that you are now trying to write fiction made me laugh–I mean that in a good way. I’ve wondered if I need to get an engineering or aerodynamics degree if i want to write for NASA. My computer science degree is beyond outdated–we used keypunch cards and dumb terminals.

    If you had to do it over, would you gain access to science writing in another way?

  2. Well, I did start out as a wannabe science fiction writer in college, but I didn’t know enough science/technology to speak authoritatively/correctly from that angle. Then I started becoming a free-time space advocate and a professional tech writer and started learning how sci/tech actually worked–only to lose my interest in writing fiction for awhile. So now I’m back to writing fiction here and there, and I’m writing about people, not technology, because I spend all day with rivets and rockets.

    As far as my path to getting to NASA, I definitely would have taken a more direct route: more science classes–perhaps a science minor of some sort–and more tech writing classes. Graduate with an English lit degree, and your father asks, “So: now that you have no MARKETABLE skills, what are you going to do with yourself?” The remark was simultaneously funny, painful, and true. I didn’t take myself seriously as a professional or an artisan until I started getting paid to write. Before that, I wrote SF stories as a way to get into science and technology without having to do any of the math.

    As far as finding a writer’s path to NASA, I only know my own, and it was a combination of free-time advocacy and serious tech writing in another engineering field (military engineering) before I got my “big break” and found a job in the space business. Along the way, I also picked up other writing experiences, including instructional design, information technology, and policy papers. The mix helped.

    Good luck in your endeavors!


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